A consistent batsman in domestic cricket, Usman Salahuddin made his Test debut for Pakistan in 2018 in difficult conditions in England, in a match which his side lost by an innings and 55 runs. What seemed like a promising start to his Test career did not materialize and despite performing well at the domestic level where he was the 4th highest-scoring batsman in the recently concluded Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, he still finds himself excluded from the national side.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Usman spoke about his success in the 2020/21 edition of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, advice and encouragement he has received from the Pakistan Head Coach Misbah-ul-Haq and Chief Selector Mohammad Wasim, the dangers of undervaluing the 4-Day game in preference to performances in the PSL, why Fawad Alam's example of perseverance against odds is one that he would like to follow and his desire to make a comeback in Test cricket for his country in the future.
By Saj Sadiq (8th February, 2021)
PakPassion.net: You must be pleased with how the domestic season went on a personal level and at a team level?
Usman Salahuddin: Yes, it’s been another good season for me. Amongst the achievements this year, I would list the fact that I finished fourth in the list of highest run-scorers in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, I scored 219 not out in the semi-final against Southern Punjab which was extremely important for my team and we reached the final of the tournament which of course was a tie. I had been told to up my strike-rate this season and it was something that I worked on and achieved. I worked on a couple of issues with my batting and I am satisfied with how things turned out.
PakPassion.net: Who told you to improve your strike-rate?
Usman Salahuddin: I had a conversation with Misbah-ul-Haq before the start of the season, about what I needed to work on regarding my batting, as I needed to know where I was going wrong in his eyes. He said the main issue was my strike-rate which needed to be improved as modern-day cricket has changed and he felt that I needed to up my game regarding this. So, I took that suggestion on board and I have made some changes to my game which I feel have helped me improve as a batsman. He said that my technique was fine, my defensive game was very good, but It was just my strike-rate that they felt was my weak point.
PakPassion.net: It can’t be easy to just up your strike-rate when you have been batting a certain way throughout your career, can it?
Usman Salahuddin: I analysed my batting and looked at improving my strike-rotation and trying to cut down the number of dot-balls. By that I mean trying to turn some of the dot balls into ones or twos and looking to get towards a strike-rate of 50 in 4-day cricket.
PakPassion.net: An improved strike-rate, 4th highest scorer in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, an average of 48.63, but still no international call-up. It must seem like there isn’t much else you can do?
Usman Salahuddin: Whatever targets that I was set, I achieved them. Whatever improvements they wanted from me, I made. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the selectors who they want to pick. They picked what they felt was the best combination for the series against South Africa and all I can do is to just go out there and perform and not worry about whether I will get picked or not. My focus is on ensuring that whenever the chance of international selection comes once again, I grab that opportunity with both hands.
PakPassion.net: Have you had a chance to speak with Mohammad Wasim since he has become Chief Selector?
Usman Salahuddin: Yes, I spoke with him after the squad for the South Africa series was announced. He spoke with a few of us about our progress and what he wanted to see from us. He also mentioned that whatever roles players had been performing in domestic cricket would be the roles that they would be challenging for in international cricket. He asked me to not get disheartened and said that he had noticed improvements in my batting and that I am part of their plans, and to be ready to go out there and perform, whenever my chance came.
PakPassion.net: What did you say in response to Mohammad Wasim?
Usman Salahuddin: I said to him that I have made the improvements that were asked of me, especially regarding my strike rate. I have 24 first-class hundreds and 50 first-class fifties at an average of nearly 48 across 128 first-class matches. I’m an experienced cricketer who is ready to play international cricket. Any weaknesses I had, I have removed from my batting, so I am ready to play for my country whenever I am needed.
PakPassion.net: Is there a concern that despite the kind words, you are performing season after season, yet are still being ignored by the national selectors?
Usman Salahuddin: I have always been a very positive and strong-minded person who doesn’t get disheartened easily. I have a lot of self-belief in my ability and will prove to everyone that I am good enough for international cricket. Of course there is disappointment when you are not picked but you have to stay strong, otherwise you just lose all hope and your performances suffer. It’s that hope that keeps you strong-willed and keeps you going. My aim is just to keep on performing in domestic cricket and hope that I remain on the selectors radar and one day I will get another chance to play for my country.
PakPassion.net: Do you think 4-day cricket is being undervalued in Pakistan?
Usman Salahuddin: Ever since the Pakistan Super League has started the younger players just want to focus on that and are overlooking 4-day cricket. Those young players coming through openly say they just want to focus on T20s and say that is down to the possibility of making more money from that format and there is more chance of being spotted and picked for the Pakistan side via that format. This is such a bad and worrying attitude. I have always believed that 4-day cricket is the highest level of domestic cricket which tests your fitness, technique and I would urge our younger players to pay more attention to this format than the shorter formats.
PakPassion.net: What improvements are needed in 4-day cricket in Pakistan?
Usman Salahuddin: There have been a lot of improvements which have been really beneficial for 4-day cricket. Whilst live telecasts are a real plus point, I would still urge the PCB to ensure that 4-day cricket is given the same level of importance as the PSL. I believe that salaries and match fees need to be looked at and increased, as that is an issue especially for those players who believe that money can only be made by playing twenty over cricket.
I also think that 4-day matches should only be played at Test venues as that will better prepare the players for Test cricket. Pakistan’s ranking in Test cricket is going down and the only way to help us move up in the rankings is by improving our domestic 4-day cricket and by ensuring that our younger players take 4-day cricket seriously and see it as the format that they need to play in.
PakPassion.net: Is there a danger that more players could head to United States of America as Sami Aslam has done and others are rumoured to be considering?
Usman Salahuddin: The issue here is that a number of players had jobs with the departments they were playing for. With the closure of the departmental teams came insecurity for many players and they are worried about their future and that is why they are looking to move overseas. But I believe that those players who have strong self-belief will carry on playing in Pakistan. I recently received a big offer to go and play cricket in USA, but I told them that my focus is on performing in domestic cricket and playing for my country once again. Many other players have received offers and I guess those who don’t see any prospects of further progress in Pakistan cricket will leave in the hope that their future is brighter overseas.
PakPassion.net: Is Fawad Alam’s example one that keeps you going?
Usman Salahuddin: Absolutely. Fawad Alam’s example is there for all to see. He performed in domestic cricket for many years but didn’t get a chance. Look at his batting average and his performances in domestic cricket. He never gave up, he always focussed on his cricket and never looked at any negative aspects. That hard work and patience has now paid-off and he has got his rewards. He never left Pakistan, he never complained, he just continued to work hard, and score runs and that is a great example to all cricketers. His example is one that I am following and looking to follow.
PakPassion.net: You were picked for one Test match and then never picked again. That was quite bizarre wasn’t it?
Usman Salahuddin: You can never judge a player after just one performance. You have to give a player a run of matches to see if that player can cope in international cricket and stand up to the demands of that level. Even Babar Azam recently said that our philosophy is to give a player a proper chance and a run of matches to prove himself and not just drop any player after one match. This is what should be happening for all players and who knows if this opportunity had been afforded to me, I might have still been playing Test cricket for Pakistan and would have established myself in this format.
PakPassion.net: Pakistan currently has a weakness in the opening positions. Have you considered converting yourself into an opening batsman?
Usman Salahuddin: This season I moved up to the number 3 position in the batting order for the first time in my career. So, I have obtained a lot of experience facing the new ball and I believe that in order to succeed at the top of the order you have to have a solid defensive technique which I have. Considering it was my first season at number 3, I think it’s been a successful transition. You are right about Pakistan’s struggles in the opening positions and I believe that Pakistan needs at least one solid opener who can play long innings and see off the new ball. I’ve given this some thought and I am ready to open in domestic cricket and for Pakistan if required.
PakPassion.net: How difficult has it been to play domestic cricket within the Covid-19 restrictions?
Usman Salahuddin: The Pakistan Cricket Board deserves a lot of credit for all of their arrangements and ensuring that domestic tournaments have been played and completed, as was the 5th edition of the PSL. For the players it was extremely tough as we were in a bubble for nearly 4 months with a lot of restrictions. It was mentally very tough on the players who were not allowed out of the hotels, but the Board and the players deserve credit for ensuring that the tournaments were played without any major incident. Preparations were restricted and so was the training which made it difficult and as I say it was a tough, but a very enjoyable season.
PakPassion.net: What are your plans for the future?
Usman Salahuddin: I have always wanted to play for Pakistan and I have always believed that I am good enough to play Test cricket for a long time. My name is known due to my country and I am ready for another chance to play for my country. In the off-season I’ll be looking to continue working on my game and will be looking to play some club cricket in the UK if the opportunity arises. So let’s see, hopefully I will get a chance to establish myself in Test cricket in future before it’s too late.